Guest Article: Francis Bedford's vision at the Royal Institute of British Architects Library

By Robert Elwall, assistant director at the RIBA Library Photographs | 03 August 2010
a sepia toned photographed of a ruined ecclesiastical building with a man wearing a top hat sitting in an archway

(Above) Francis Bedford, Raglan Castle (late 1850s). Image © RIBA

Culture24 continues its series on the RIBA Library Photographs Collection with an exploration of the pioneering work of popular architectural photographer Francis Bedford (1816-1894)...

Unsurprisingly, early photographers of architecture in Britain were heavily influenced by pre-photographic modes of representation, especially the etchings of John Sell Cotman and the watercolours of artists such as Thomas Girtin, Paul and Thomas Sandby, and the young JMW Turner.

Indeed, many photographic pioneers themselves boasted backgrounds in painting or the graphic arts. Roger Fenton was a painter as was Calvert Jones; PH Delamotte was a member of the Old Water Colour Society; and Henry Dixon was a copperplate engraver.

A further case in point is Francis Bedford (1816-1894), who trained as a lithographer. The son of a noted Greek Revival architect, Bedford largely displayed his lithographic skills in the field of architecture, illustrating EB Lamb's Studies of Ancient Domestic Architecture (1846) and several guides to York's buildings before becoming involved with one of the most magisterial publications of the period, Owen Jones's Grammar of Ornament (1856).

Bedford's early publications already reveal a significant shift away from the rigours of neoclassicism to a much freer, more picturesque interpretation for which lithography was ideally suited and which was to be the hallmark of his later photographic work.

Having taken up photography in the early 1850s, Bedford emerged as the foremost professional exponent of the picturesque approach to architectural rendering. This had not only been championed by amateur photographers, but was closely in tune with contemporary developments in architectural drawing, especially the emergence of the perspective that was concerned to depict the building in its setting.

a photo of a high archway of a ruined abbey

Rievaulx Abbey (late 1850s). Image © RIBA

This picturesque doctrine was articulated by, among others, William Gilpin in his Three Essays (1792). He maintained that "the picturesque eye is perhaps most inquisitive after the elegant relics of ancient architecture; the ruined tower, the Gothic arch, the remains of castles and abbeys."

These were precisely the subjects Bedford sought out. Rievaulx Abbey (late 1850s) is a typical work, conveying a luminous sense of aerial perspective and fully justifying the architect TL Donaldson's verdict that Bedford was "particularly successful in his combinations of building and landscape scenery."

Whereas the photography of his contemporary, Roger Fenton, was dominated by the severe logic of the straight line, Bedford's compositions had a soft, mellow fluidity that sought to seduce rather than arrest the viewer. If the subjects Bedford chose to depict had been seen ad nauseam, what made them "at all bearable" to one critic was "the astonishing perfection in which they are rendered."

Bedford was one of the chief contributors to the exhibitions of the Architectural Photographic Association, set up in 1857 to encourage architects to make more extensive use of the new medium.

However, his contributions came under attack from architects such as GE Street, who felt that the talents of Bedford and his fellow photographers should not ave been wasted on tackling subjects that were already well-known, but instead should have been directed at "illustrations of work, which is not of sufficient popular interest to be done by private speculators."

By this, Street meant the portrayal of architectural details and sculpture. Bedford, however, had a living to make, and during the 1860s and 1870s developed a very successful business specializing in topographical views of Britain's most admired locales.

Find out more about the RIBA Library Photographs Collection at www.ribapix.com.

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